Viewers of breakfast television may have experienced a disturbing sense of deja vu on Wednesday. Outside, glorious sunshine heralded another perfect summer’s day; on screen, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, was defending a Covid schools announcement that had been greeted with immediate and almost universal criticism. It all felt very “summer of 2020”, when the exam-marking fiasco cast a shadow of ministerial incompetence over the end of the academic year.
Sadly, the government’s post-pandemic catch-up plans for pupils are very much a disaster of the present moment. Mr Williamson has unveiled a new £1.4bn programme to help English children regain lost ground, after 15 months of severe educational disruption and psychological strain. The money, mainly targeted at limited extra tutoring and teacher training, is about a tenth of the amount called for by Sir Kevan Collins, the government’s now-ex education recovery commissioner. The Education Policy Institute estimates that pandemic-related spending on English pupils adds up to £310 a head. That compares to equivalent figures of £1,600 in the US and £2,500 in the Netherlands. Having said, with heavy understatement, “more will be needed to meet the challenge”, Sir Kevan decided enough was enough and quit his post. It is not hard to see why.
The pandemic has robbed many children of almost half a year’s worth of normal in-school education. The impact of that disruption has weighed disproportionately on those pupils from less well-off families, with less access to remote learning and facing other disadvantages. This summer’s GCSE exam results may reveal that the attainment gap between the most and least advantaged children has widened by as much as a quarter. After a uniquely challenging year, which in many cases will have involved bereavement as well as social isolation, well-resourced pastoral care in schools should be as much a priority as addressing lost learning.
Greatly expanding early years provision for very young children, who will have had minimal social contact beyond their homes, is another costly imperative. A recent poll found that over half of all parents of preschool children are worried about their child’s development and wellbeing. Insufficiently addressed, these are all issues which will have a negative economic and social impact for years to come, as the legacy of Covid plays itself out in individual biographies.
What an unbelievable mess. The funding of a modest amount of top-up tuition, repeat final years and some support for teachers is, of course, welcome as far as it goes. But even Mr Williamson knows it does not go anywhere near far enough. It seems the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, may have thrown out a more ambitious plan last week, which would have cost over £10bn. From the exams debacle to the botched reopenings of schools to the shameful foot-dragging over free school meals in the holidays, this government has let down young people again and again during the pandemic. In her final speech as children’s commissioner in February, Anne Longfield challenged Boris Johnson to raise the government’s game, asking: “Do you understand the additional harm that has been done to children during the pandemic? Are you serious about ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up’?” The answer to both questions is clearly “no”. For the education secretary this is surely a fiasco too far.